Epistemic status: very speculative. This is mythmaking: you’ve been warned.
Ra is the Sun God
The Egyptian god Ra was a symbol of divine kingship, all-powerful and all-seeing. He’s a good metaphor for a certain kind of psychological phenomenon that involves thought distortions around authority and legitimacy. A new demon, if you will, in the grimoire that includes Moloch and Azathoth.
The idea of a malign Establishment is somewhat convergent:
The Establishment (attributed to Henry Fairlie in 1950’s Britain, talking about an informal social network of power among prominent, well-connected people)
The Man (e.g. Yippies, Burning Man)
The Combine (Ken Kesey)
Moloch (Allen Ginsberg)
The Beige Dictatorship (Charles Stross)
The Cathedral (Mencius Moldbug)
The Mandarins (Megan McArdle)
Not all of these ideas are coterminous with Ra, or identical to each other.
What they have in common is that the Establishment is primarily an upper-class phenomenon, that it is more about social and moral legitimacy than mere wealth or raw power, and that it is boringly evil — it produces respectable, normal, right-thinking, mild-mannered people who do things with very bad consequences.
What Ra is not
The usual pitfall when using poetic language to define egregores is making them too broad. There is not one root of all evil that causes all the ills of the world.
Ra is not simply conformity, simply authoritarianism, or simply power-seeking. Ra is not the same as “bureaucracy” or “capitalism” or “fallen human nature” or all the myriad reasons why your idealistic goal might fail. Ra is not “everything that is wrong with people who disagree with me.”
As a social phenomenon, Ra is responsible for some dysfunctions in the democratic modern West; it is not, for instance, what was going on with the Nazis, or with terrorists, or with communist revolutionaries, or with the Confederates in the American Civil War. Ra is not driving people who want to take over the world for some fanatic goal. It’s more like a dissipating, entropic motion, a process that corrupts institutions.
But it’s not merely the most commonly claimed drivers of institutional decay, like “knowledge problems” or “coordination problems”. People who participate in those problems are following rational self-interest, but wind up contributing individually to collectively harmful outcomes. Ra is something more like a psychological mindset, that causes people to actually seek corruption and confusion, and to prefer corruption for its own sake — though, of course, it doesn’t feel quite like that from the inside.
Ra is a specific kind of glitch in intuition, which can roughly be summarized as the drive to idealize vagueness and despise clarity. I’m going to try to define it by extension, using examples from my and others’ personal experiences.
Ra is about generic superlativity.
You know how universal gods are praised with formulas that call them glorious, mighty, exalted, holy, righteous, and other suchlike adjectives, all of which are perfectly generic and involve no specific characteristics except wonderfulness? That’s what Ra is all about.
The worship of Ra involves a preference for stockpiling money, accolades, awards, or other resources, beyond what you can meaningfully consume or make practical use of; a felt sense of wanting to attain that abstract radiance of “bestness”.
A featureless, powerful organization, something with a name like “Acme Corp”, whose activities you can’t pin down, is archetypally Ra. Especially if it’s associated with markers of excellence (e.g. very smart high-achieving employees) or fully general capabilities (eg the most powerful computers in the world). OpenAI has a lot of this quality, as does Google, as did Enron before its collapse, as do top management consulting firms and investment banks and Ivy League schools. Effective Altruism, when it’s just “a movement for generic optimal goodness”, has a lot of this quality. When an organization seems shiny, full of the best and brightest, and is presumed to be potentially good at everything, it is appealing in a very Ra-flavored way.
In my mind I synaesthetically imagine Ra as radiant white light and smoothness (as in “futuristic” computer graphics, or as in mirror-like glossiness.)
Ra is evident in marketing that is smooth, featureless, full of unspecified potential goodness, “all things to all people,” like Obama’s 2008 campaign. (Note the logo, with its smooth gradient and radiant white sun.) Apple’s design is also very Ra.
Ra is about legitimacy.
When someone is willing to work for prestige, but not merely for money or intrinsic interest, they’re being influenced by Ra. The love of prestige is not only about seeking “status” (as it cashes out to things like high quality of life, admiration, sex), but about trying to be an insider within a prestigious institution. Not only “people like and respect and desire me” but “this abstract, objective Thing full of goodness has sanctioned me.” People with money or charisma but no prestige read as sleazy (e.g. gamblers, gurus) while people with status and prestige/insiderness read as legitimate (e.g. the rightful king or official priest or licensed professional.)
Ra involves seeing abstract, impersonal institutions as more legitimate than individuals. For instance, I have the intuition that it is gross and degrading to pay an individual person to clean your house, but less so to hire a maid service, and still less so if a building that belongs to an institution hires a janitor. Institutions can have authority and legitimacy in a way that humans cannot; humans who serve institutions serve Ra.
Seen through Ra-goggles, giving money to some particular man to spend on the causes he thinks best is weird and disturbing; putting money into a foundation, to exist in perpetuity, is respectable and appropriate. The impression that it is run collectively, by “the institution” rather than any individual persons, makes it seem more Ra-like, and therefore more appealing.
Ra causes avoidance of challenging regulators and establishment hierarchies in significant excess of the actual legal and reputational costs of doing so. Not just caution, but a sort of unbounded over-caution that makes you willing to throw huge amounts of value away to reduce already small risks. Selfishness can motivate caution and even conformity; Ra-worship motivates sacrificing excess value to institutions you view as more legitimate than yourself.
Once, the CEO of a hedge fund and a friend of mine were in a heated argument, and the CEO finally pushed his point home by saying “200 PhDs work for me, so I know what I’m talking about.” This is argument by legitimacy. It’s just saying “because my institution has piled up a lot of excellence in one place, I get to talk and you have to shut up.” It’s not an argument from expertise like “My 200 physics PhD’s agree with my point about physics” would be. It’s not even a direct power claim like “My 200 armed security guards will make you shut up.” The guards would be a practical threat; the PhD’s really aren’t. But they would be, to someone who believed that they granted legitimacy, that the accumulation of PhDs proved that the CEO had more right to speak and think.
Ra defends itself with vagueness, confusion, incoherence — and then anger.
“Respectability” turns out to be incoherent quite often — i.e. if you have any consistent model of the world you often have to take extreme or novel positions as a logical conclusion from your assumptions. To Ra, disrespectability is damnation, and thus consistent thought is suspect.
Vagueness, mental fog, “underconfidence”, avoidance, evasion, blanking out, etc. are hallmarks of Ra. If cornered, a person embodying Ra will abruptly switch from blurry vagueness to anger and nihilism.
I have, in Ra-influenced moods, had the intuition “I don’t know if it’s possible to be a consistent economic agent [i.e. von Neumann-Morgenstern] and still be good.” Consistency implies the potential for disobedience. Consistency means you might not be recruitable or available to arbitrary purposes. It’s the opposite of malleability. Ra wants its worshippers to be always available, always malleable; and calls it “wicked” to have resistance to that.
One friend of mine discussed having a conversation about the future of humanity with someone, getting the strong sense that this person was being evasive and switching between viewpoints, and also that underneath the evasiveness there was a negative-utilitarian belief that humanity ought to be annihilated. And she worried that if she pushed too hard on insisting the other person make a coherent argument, that he would double down on the negative utilitarianism and become vindictive about it. This is prototypical Ra behavior. Smooth, soft vagueness that, when challenged, collapses into angry nihilism.
One symptom of Ra is being offended or upset when friends and allies are not doing things associated with power and status. Actual insecurity and anger at the sight of someone doing their own thing, behaving in ways that don’t bring them closer to the center of coolness/shininess/power/etc.
Nastasya Philipovna, in The Idiot, demonstrates this kind of anger; when she meets the man who embodies her moral ideal, instead of reaching out to him as a lover, she is outraged that he’s being shabby and noble and ignoring the “way of the world”, and she actively ruins his life. It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate goodness; it’s that it freaks her out. People ought not be that good. It disturbs the universe. Myshkin is missing something — it’s not clear what, because if you look at his words and actions explicitly he seems to be behaving quite sensibly and moderately — but he’s missing some intuition about the “way of the world”, and that enrages everyone around him.
I remember being angry at a coworker, once, for attempting to sell a product to big pharma companies, because he was thinking of them too lightly, not appreciating the awesome majesty of the pharma companies that we were barely worthy to submit our ideas to. He seemed not to understand the unspoken “way of the world”, and that made me angry. That was classic Ra thinking on my part.
Ra is involved in the sense of “everyone but me is in on the joke, there is a Thing that I don’t understand myself but is the most important Thing, and I must approximate or imitate or cargo-cult the Thing, and anybody who doesn’t is bad.” E.g. having the intuition that the power to make successful companies lies in things like “complex sales”, without understanding how complex sales works on a nuts-and-bolts level. If you just associate complex sales guys with power and success, if you have the feeling that they probably know how to become an insider even if you don’t, then you’re engaging in Ra thinking.
Ra causes persistent brain fog or confusion, especially around economic thinking or cost-benefit analysis or quantitative estimates. E.g. for a while I had a block around the question “How much would it cost to outfit a biology lab?” and thought that this was literally impossible for me to discover the answer to because the information would only be available to properly credentialed biologists or pharma company employees. I had a weird aversion to seeking information or thinking directly about the problem. Another time, I had a block around answering the question “How many lives would be saved if all men got HPV vaccines?” because it was epidemiology and people were talking about publishing the results in a journal and I felt unworthy as a non-academic to submit journal articles, so I procrastinated and didn’t even try to do Fermi estimates on the question.
Ra tends to cause confusion and brain fog around modeling preferences, particularly two or more independent agents trying to negotiate mutually beneficial solutions. When Ra is active, you’ll see a persistent disposition, in otherwise intelligent people, to misunderstand trade or negotiation scenarios as dominance/submission scenarios.
Ra may cause blurriness around objectives. In Drucker’s Management, the purpose of a business (or nonprofit or government agency) is explicitly not to maximize profits or shareholder value, or to produce the best widgets or save the most lives, but to fulfill its function. But what does that even mean? It means something like the preservation of the organization — but it’s not specific.
There’s a disinclination to get specific about numbers or negotiations or goals or arguments. And then an angry sense that people who do get specific are “doing it wrong” or “bad people” and deserve harshness. An intuition that the really important things in life, the true “ways of the world”, are hidden or mysterious, always unspoken, and must be respected.
Ra hates communication and introspection.
Ra causes a disinclination to express oneself. An impression that a person who is unknown or mysterious is more attractive or favorably received than a person who is an “open book.” A tendency to prefer private and off-the-record communications. There are many non-Ra reasons for secrecy, privacy, or reservedness (e.g. spies, shy people) — the core Ra quality is not merely the concealment but the idealization of the invisible, an intuition that people who display a smooth surface to the world are better.
Glamour is a related idea (see Virginia Postrel), in particular the glamour of “mystery and illusion.” Glamorous things or people are idealized precisely because the details are airbrushed out.
There’s also a preference not to engage with people authentically — i.e. being more comfortable asking someone for a pre-packaged response (like “give me money” or “sign this petition”) than asking them to have an open-ended conversation with you.
Ra promotes the idea that optimal politeness conveys as little information as possible. That you should actively try to hide preferences (because if you shared them, you’d inconvenience others by pressuring them to satisfy your preferences). That all compliments are empty pleasantries. There’s an interpretation of “politeness” that’s anti-cooperative, that avoids probing for opportunities for genuine mutual benefit or connection and just wants to make the mutual defection process go as smoothly as possible. Ra prefers this, because it’s less revealing, commits you less, doesn’t pin you down, allows you to keep all your options open and devote everything to the pursuit of Ra.
Ra is involved in intuitions about silence or absence being ideal. A blank sheet of paper is more beautiful than any art you can put on it, because the art is potentially flawed, while blankness is flawless. Blankness leaves all the options open. See also The Whiteness of the Whale.
People who write a lot, or enjoy discussions, or spend a lot of time on introspective “inner work”, tend to be less Ra-oriented. Blogging is very anti-Ra. Having opinions and making essay-style arguments, for all the flaws of that medium, does promote some degree of coherence and specificity, and promotes people sharing their inner lives. Having a coherent, specific, shareable inner life means you’re less malleable, less blank, and Ra insists that people’s inner lives be completely malleable and blank.
I’ve had my writing criticized because “when you give your opinion, it sounds like you think you’re smart”. And I’ve spent a lot of time feeling ashamed of “thinking out loud” in public, because it tarnishes the glossy facade that it’s easy to feel obligated to put up. I’ve also had my more mainstream, Ivy League friends express surprise that I cared at all or made the slightest effort for friends in trouble. Being committed or involved in people’s lives is also messy and doesn’t permit the preservation of a flawless impression. Expressing yourself, thinking speculatively, and relating to people are shameful to the Ra-worshipping mindset, because all mental and emotional resources must be channeled into the quest for prestige.
Gruad Grayface, in the Illuminatus! Trilogy, is one of many figures representing “the Man” or malign technocratic authority, and he is accused of setting people against each other, making them unable to empathize across demographic lines (men and women, black and white), because if they communicated with each other they would realize that they were natural allies and none of them benefited from Gruad’s tyrannical rule.
There’s a persistent theme in the 60’s counterculture ethos that if people just communicated authentically, it would make a big difference to the world. And while this sounds like a platitude, I think it might be an important truth about the nature of Ra. See “The Sound of Silence.” See Leary’s exhortation to “find the others.” See the dystopia of perfect conformity that is Camazotz, which is vanquished by human flaws and by the love of specific people. Understanding that everyone has an inner life and nobody is smooth and blank is the antithesis of Ra.
Ra is fake Horus.
Originally, the Egyptian falcon-god Horus was the god representing the Pharaoh’s sovereignty. The notion of Horus as the pharaoh seems to have been superseded by the concept of the Pharaoh as the son of Ra during the Fifth Dynasty.
Horus was supposed to be literally the Pharaoh; that is, there’s some actual dude in charge, a god-king. Ra, by contrast, is “father of the Pharaoh”, the un-look-at-able “power behind the throne.” Instead of sovereignty that rests in an individual, Ra represents the abstract supreme to which the king is subordinate.
If Horus, the far-sighted, kingly bird, represents “clear brightness” and “being the rightful and just ruler”, then Ra is a sort of fake version of these qualities. Instead of the light that distinguishes, it’s the light too bright to look at. Instead of clear brightness, it’s smooth brightness.
Instead of objectivity, excellence, justice, all the “daylight” virtues associated with Horus (what you might also call Apollonian virtues), Ra represents something that’s also shiny and authoritative and has the aesthetic of the daylight virtues, but in an unreal form.
Instead of science, Ra chooses scientism. Instead of systematization and explicit legibility, Ra chooses an impression of abstract generality which, upon inspection, turns out to be zillions of ad hoc special cases. Instead of impartial justice, Ra chooses a policy of signaling propriety and eliteness and lack of conflicts of interest. Instead of excellence pointed at a goal, Ra chooses virtuosity kept as an ornament.
(Auden’s version of Apollo is probably Ra imitating the Apollonian virtues. The leadership-oriented, sunnily pragmatic, technological approach to intellectual affairs is not always phony — it’s just that it’s the first to be corrupted by phonies.)
Horus is not Ra. Horus likes organization, clarity, intelligence, money, excellence, and power — and these things are genuinely valuable. If you want to accomplish big goals, it is perfectly rational to seek them, because they’re force multipliers. Pursuit of force multipliers — that is, pursuit of power — is not inherently Ra. There is nothing Ra-like, for instance, about noticing that software is a fully general force multiplier and trying to invest in or make better software. Ra comes in when you start admiring force multipliers for no specific goal, just because they’re shiny.
Ra is not the disposition to seek power for some goal, but the disposition to approve of power and to divert it into arbitrariness. It is very much NOT Machiavellian; Machiavelli would think it was foolish.
Ra corresponds to a stage in the corruption of organizations.
Thomas W. Lamont is an excellent example of Ra. He was a banker at JP Morgan in the 1930’s who was famously gifted at communication, very much one of the club (Harvard and Exeter), somewhat “idealistic” but in a very vague sense that mostly amounted to rationalizing whatever power structure was nearby. He ended up making major loans to militarist Japan and Mussolini, and was a major apologist for them right up until the situation became intolerably obvious; at which point without any apparent sense of shame he gave up on them, after making sure his friends were taken care of (e.g. negotiating a Morgan banker’s release from Italian imprisonment).
Lamont’s communication to the Japanese and later to Mussolini was all “I know you mean well but it’s getting harder to defend you, here’s some suggestions for how to clear up the obvious misunderstanding.” He’s not a cynical power-seeker in these letters; he’s genuinely righteously indignant at people doubting his “ideals.” There’s no master plan to gain power for himself or for an ideology he supports. He just seems to think “clearly the people gaining power must be good!”
The Lamonts of the world generally show up after the founding generation, after people like J. Pierpont Morgan himself, who was a genuine innovator who developed “modernization” techniques to make the businesses he took over profitable. Vague objectives are only possible once institutions that steadily produce value have already been set in motion. You see Ra-like figures at around the peak of an institution’s flourishing, when it’s begun to be possible to capture value without producing any, but before the decline is so severe that overtly exploitative behavior is socially acceptable. Ra has a quality that’s triumphalist and slightly disconnected from reality — “Our institution is so powerful and wonderful that its proper sphere is the whole world! And its job is to perpetuate its own flourishing!”
Ra is easy to overcome
As forces in the human psyche go, Ra is a pretty mild one. It’s not a powerful biological drive like aggression, or a difficult-to-treat problem like depression, or a highly optimized energy-saving structure like the standard cognitive biases.
Ra is hard to pin down, but vulnerable to open communication and introspection. If you can talk and think about what you want, or how you feel, or why you believe what you do, and you don’t dodge the question, Ra will dissolve like mist. The illusion of smooth impersonal perfection doesn’t survive long after you get to know particular human beings. The subjective impression of something being like a vague glowy ball of positive affect doesn’t survive explicit discussion or analysis. The sensation of total unknowability doesn’t survive the attempt to actually find things out.
It’s so faint and wispy that many people might say “Ra doesn’t have any part in my life!” And you might be right. Or it might be hidden in hard-to-find places, in certain questions you don’t ask and tasks you delay starting. It’s very, very rare for people to say “yes, I totally experience these things.” But if you notice them, and are aware that they don’t make sense, then the fog yields to sunlight.